After US breakthrough, Europe looks in mirror
Steven Erlanger, NYT News Service
PARIS: In the general European euphoria over the election of Barack Obama, there is the beginning of self-reflection about Europe’s own troubles with racial integration. Many are asking if there could be a French, British, German or Italian Obama, and everyone knows the answer is no, not anytime soon.
It is risky to make racial comparisons between America and Europe, given all the historical and cultural differences. But race had long been one reason that Europeans, harking back to the days when famous American blacks like Josephine Baker and James Baldwin found solace in France, looked down on the United States, even as Europe developed postcolonial racial problems of its own.
“They always said, ‘You think race relations are bad here in France, check out the U.S.,’ ” said Mohamed Hamidi, former editor of the Bondy Blog, founded after the 2005 riots in the heavily immigrant suburbs of Paris.
“But that argument can no longer stand,” he said.
For many immigrants to Europe, Mr. Obama’s victory is “a small revolution” toward better overall treatment of minorities, said Nadia Azieze, 31, an Algerian-born nurse who grew up here. “It will never be the same,” she said, over a meal of rice and lamb in the racially mixed Paris neighborhood of Barbès-Rochechouart.
Her sister, Cherine, 29, is a computer engineer. Mr. Obama “really represents the dream of America – if you work, you can make it,” she said. “It’s a hope for the entire world.”
But the sisters are less optimistic about the realities of France, where minorities have a limited political role, with only one black deputy elected to the National Assembly from mainland France.
Has the Obama election caused any real self-reflection among the majority here? “It’s politically correct to say, ‘O.K., great! He’s black,’ and clap,” Nadia said. “But deep down, there’s no change. People say one thing and believe another.”
In all the jobs she has ever had, she said, “I’ve always been asked to do more, because I’m an immigrant. We always have to prove ourselves.”
Down the street, picking through the cheap clothes on sidewalk stands, Fatou Diedhiou, 34, born in Senegal, said that Mr. Obama’s victory may make the French give blacks “a bit of respect.” But she finds deep racism among the French, who she says “think that all blacks are illiterate and can’t do anything but clean.”
Mr. Obama is an exceptional figure even in the United States, a nation of immigrants with a long and complex history of racial problems going back to the Indian wars and the extensive slave trade, which produced a bloody civil war.
Most European countries were relatively monoethnic until the postcolonial period. Britain, for example, was largely white until the mid-20th century and still does not have a substantial black middle class, while French immigrants are almost all from former French colonies in North Africa, like Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, or in black Africa, like Mali, Senegal and Ivory Coast.
Measured by political representation of minorities, both the United States and Europe seem lagging, though Mr. Obama’s victory seemed to underscore how much farther behind Europe is.
Mr. Obama is the only black in the current Senate, and unless he is replaced by an African-American, the new Senate will have none. The new House has 39 black representatives, about 9 percent. Blacks make up about 13 percent of the country’s population.
But Rama Yade, the Senegal-born state secretary for human rights, called herself “a painful exception” in the French government, despite President Nicolas Sarkozy’s appointment of three prominent black or Muslim women to his government. As for the political elite’s embrace of Mr. Obama, she said, “The enthusiasm they express toward this far-away American, they don’t have it for the minorities in France.”
It is not only immigrants who are pondering what Mr. Obama’s victory says about Europe. France’s defense minister, Hervé Morin, called the Obama victory “a lesson” for a French democracy late to adopt integration.
“In this election, the Americans not only chose a president, but also their identity,” said Dominique Moïsi, a French political analyst. “And now we have to think, too, about our identity in France – it’s the most challenging election ever. We realize we are late, and America has regained the torch of a moral revolution.”
In Italy, Jean-Léonard Touadi, the only black member of the Italian Parliament, sees the Obama victory similarly. It is “a great and concrete provocation to European society and European politics,” said Mr. Touadi, born in the Congo Republic. Mr. Obama gives hope, he said, that “one day” there can be a similar outcome in Europe.
But not soon. Hossain Moazzem, a Bangladeshi waiter at L’Insalata Ricca restaurant, said he hoped Mr. Obama’s victory would foster “change all over the world.” But Italy, he said, had a “long, long” way to go.
In Britain, too, there was skepticism. Trevor Phillips, the black chairman of the independent Equality and Human Rights Commission, said that the political system held immigrants back. “If Barack Obama had lived here, I would be very surprised if even somebody as brilliant as him would have been able to break through the institutional stranglehold that there is on power,” he told The Times of London.
Britain has several minority ministers below cabinet rank, but just 15 nonwhites in the 646-member House of Commons. The parliamentary system makes it harder for a young person or an outsider to emerge.
“In Britain, you can’t make a brilliant speech and get noticed the way Barack Obama did,” Sadiq Khan, a Labor minister, told The Guardian. “You have to rise up through the ranks in Parliament.”
But Ashok Viswanathan, assistant director of Operation Black Vote, which works to engage members of minorities in politics
, predicted that Britain could have a party leader from
a minority in the next 10 to 15 years, and a minority member as prime minister in 30.
“If someone said two years ago that there would be a black president, most people would have laughed that person out of town,” he said. “The very nature of aspiration is when barriers are broken, whether in flying to the moon or being the first black person around a cabinet table – it’s something that nobody believes will happen.”
Germany is yet a different case, with its largest immigrant population invited from Turkey to work in West German factories in the 1960s and 1970s. Germany now has some 2.9 million inhabitants of Turkish background, 800,000 of them with German citizenship under new laws. But they have little political representation in the unified Germany of 82 million, with just 5 members of the 613-seat Bundestag.
Even Cem Ozdemir, Germany’s best-known ethnic Turkish politician, currently a European legislator, is having trouble getting on the Greens Party list of candidates for the Bundestag – in part because of internal opposition to his ambition to lead the party.
“Germans can’t believe a Turkish politician believes in a politics for Germany,” said Mely Kiyak, 32, a German-born daughter of Turkish parents who wrote a book, “Ten for Germany,” about the problems of ethnic Turkish politicians. “The Germans think, ‘This is our country. Why should we elect a Turk? He might want to Islamicize the country.”‘
The Germans love Mr. Obama, she said, “but we don’t have minorities anywhere, not in media, in politics, in the executive or the judiciary.”
Ferdi Sarikurt, 22, who works in a bakery in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, came to Germany at age 1 and is a citizen. A German Obama is beyond his imagination, he said. “The German government would not allow this to happen because it would think that a person with an immigrant background would favor the foreigners. Maybe this will change when I am 50 years old, if at all.”
But Ms. Kiyak said the Obama victory was causing significant reflection in the immigrant community, if not yet in the country at large. “Minorities see what is possible in another country, and they become jealous,” she said, noting that President Abdullah Gul of Turkey said recently in Der Spiegel that Turkish Germans “should take part in German society and politics and not look back.”
Given that France has such close ties to its former colonies and more Muslims than any other country in Europe, the debate here is more complicated.
On Sunday, numerous politicians signed a manifesto written by Yazid Sabeg, a millionaire child of Algerian immigrants, calling for affirmative-action programs to turn the supposedly colorblind French ideal of equality into reality for alienated immigrants.
“The election of Barack Obama highlights via a cruel contrast the shortcomings of the French Republic and the distance that separates us from a country whose citizens knew how to go beyond the racial question,” the manifesto said. It won support from Mr. Sarkozy’s wife, Carla, who told Le Journal du Dimanche, “our prejudices are insidious” and hoped the “Obama effect” would help to reshape society.
But the French model of citizenship does not allow for official distinctions by race or religion. When a legislative official here was asked for data on the number of black or Muslim legislators, he told a reporter to “look at the pictures on the Senate directory,” to judge by name and skin color.
Joseph Macé-Scaron, writing in the French-language weekly Marianne, said that the discussion of a “French Obama” was a diversion and a screen, substituting a false American model onto France. The problem here, as in other parts of Europe, he said, was less the rejection of nonwhite immigrants than the way political and cultural elites patronized and used them, “only to better block access to the top of the social ladder.”
Praising “the ‘difference’ of nonwhites locked them inside identities of resentment,” he said.
But the conservative Le Figaro blamed French minorities themselves for part of their exclusion. The paper noted that Mr. Obama’s success was based on his upbringing, education and success at integrating into the larger society and articulating its values, including patriotism.
“From this point of view, Obama should be the model to follow for young immigrants who have come to doubt their feeling of belonging to the nation,” the paper said. “Minorities, who have chosen their exile, in contrast to black Americans, still have a lot to prove.